ZHENGZHOU, Dec. 21 (Xinhua) -- Messages reminding Zhao Wen to eat dumplings have been pouring in since Tuesday night, the day before China's Winter Solstice festival.
"My friends are sending wishes and posting photos of dumplings on WeChat," Zhao said in Zhengzhou City in central China's Henan Province.
Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, falls on Dec. 21 or 22. In Chinese culture, it marks the beginning of deep winter and a break from farming in traditional agricultural society. It is also a time for family gatherings.
Northern China has maintained the tradition of eating dumplings on this day, while people in southern China eat tangyuan, or rice ball soup.
The Winter Solstice is among the 24 solar terms -- important astronomical points on the Chinese calendar -- to be listed by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in late November.
Long queues were seen at noon outside many dumpling restaurants in Beijing, with some having to suspend delivery services because shops are so busy.
But few people know the origins of the custom. In northern China, people believe dumplings were invented by Zhang Zhongjing, a city governor dating back to the Han dynasty, some 1,800 years ago.
According to legend, on one cold winter day, while on his way back to Changsha in central China's Hunan province, Zhang saw many poor people suffering from cold and hunger. Some even had frostbitten ears. Feeling sympathetic, he made ear-shaped dumplings with lamb, chili pepper and other ingredients to keep them warm.
"Even today, we still have an old saying that your ears will freeze off if you don't eat dumplings on Winter Solstice," said Wang Ming, a twentysomething in Henan's Nanyang City.
Winter Solstice, or Dongzhi, has been observed in China since the Shang Dynasty (1,600 - 1,046 B.C.), according to Liu Xiaofeng, a history professor at Tsinghua University. The 24 solar terms have guided farming in China for over 2,000 years.
Urbanization and modern agriculture have weakened the impact of solar terms on daily life, but cultural and dietary habits have been passed down from generation to generation.
Twenty years ago, Wen Xiangui was given a bowl of dumplings on Winter Solstice while studying at university in northern China, and his son, now a sophomore, has never skipped the tradition.